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Azerbaijan - Yasil Bazaar: sprouting wheat for Novruz, called semeni - Nowruz - Noruz (photo by F.MacLachlan)Celebrated on the first day of Spring, Novruz is the favourite holiday in Azerbaijan, and remains a strong tradition also in Iran, Afghanistan, Turkey and in central Asia. It has a remarkable endurance and survival capacity, being of non Islamic origin it managed to retain its importance after the Arab conquest and in this century survived Soviet attempts to destroy it.

Novruz, from the Farsi "Now-Rouz", i.e. 'new day', is a celebration of the spring Equinox (which marks the new year in Iran). It has been celebrated by all the major cultures of ancient Mesopotamia. Sumerians, 3000BC, Babylonians 2000 BC, the ancient kingdom of Elam in Southern Persia 2000BC, Akaddians all have been celebrating it in one form or another. What we have today as Novruz  has been celebrated for at least 3000 years and is deeply rooted in the traditions of Zoroastrian belief system.

This was the religion of Ancient Persia before the advent of Islam 1400 years ago. It is known as the mother religion in the area. The familiar concepts of Hell, Heaven, Resurrection, coming of the Messiah, individual and last judgment were for the first time incorporated into this belief system. They still exist in Judo-Christian and Islamic traditions.

Baku, Azerbaijan: Novruz decoration in the city - a man looks at a giant Semeni, sprouting wheat - photo by N.MahmudovaZoroaster the architect of Zoroatrianism introduced many feasts, festivals and rituals to pay homage to the seven creations and the holly immortals. Seven were amongst the most important. They are known as Gahambars, feasts of obligation. The last and the most elaborate was Novruz, celebrating the Lord of Wisdom and the holly fire at the time of spring equinox.

What we have today as Novruz goes back to the Sassanid period. They were the last great Persian Empire before the advent of Islam 1400 years ago. Their celebrations would start five days prior to the New Year. They believed the guardian angles would come down to earth within these five days to visit their human counter parts. A major spring-cleaning was carried out to welcome them with feasts and celebrations. Bon fires would be set on rooftops at night to indicate to the guardian angles that humans were ready to receive them. This was called Suri Festival.

At its core, the Novruz festival celebrates the awakening of the natural life. This awakening symbolizes the triumph of good, winning against the evil forces of darkness that are represented by the Winter. Novruz is the point when the oppressive presence of the cold Winter finally begins to retrieve with the commencement of the lively and hopeful Spring. This symbolic and poetic change corresponds to the mathematical instance of the sun leaving the zodiac of Pisces and entering the zodiacal sign of Aries, also known as the Spring Equinox.

Baku, Azerbaijan: a traditional Novruz table, with sprouting wheat, at the center - photo by N.MahmudovaAs implied by its timing and natural significance, Novruz is a time of renewal and symbolizes rebirth, awakening, cleanliness and newness. Trees are pruned, fileds are cleared. A tradition is the annual Novruz cleaning. Families wash their rugs and draperies, clean and wax their furniture and often repaint their homes' interior. An almost iconic tradition associated with Nowrooz is when every person buys at least one set of new clothes, families visit elders and friends in their new clothes. Several things are used to symbolize the occasion, in Azerbaijan sprouted wheat is a favourite. This is grown in a small vase and placed in a prominent place in the house, such as a table center (the vase with the wheat is called 'semeni')

The celebrations begin four weeks before the actual day of Novruz. These four weeks - or, exactly four Wednesdays - are each devoted to one of the four elements and called correspondingly. On the last Wednsday before Novruz people light bonfires and jump over them, as in similar Spring festivities in Europe. Tradition holds that the living are visited by the spirits of their ancestors on the last days of the year. Children symbolically reenact the visits. They jump over bonfires and run through the streets, banging on pots and pans with spoons and knocking on doors to ask for treats. This ritual is called qashogh-zany and reenacts the beating out of the last unlucky Wednesday of the year.

The menu varies from a great deal from region to region, but for Novruz abundant meals are prepared and ritually seven objects are laid on the tables. Children enjoy this holiday very much, since they get present from their elders, often in the form of money.

Note: you'll come across several spellings for Novruz: Nowrooz, Nowruz, Noruz, Now-Rouz, No Ruz...

sources: persian outpost, abadan, AI

see also: holidays, history, Eid-al-Fitr, Eid-al-Adha, maps, summary, places, photos
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